The Power of Word Choice Quantified

May 1, 2006 | By | Reply More

We’ve often heard of the “War on Terror.” How much public support would this effort have had it been called the “Initiative to Bomb and Shoot People This Administration Deems Bad”?  Not as much, I assume. 

Sometimes the titles to laws and policies suggest the opposite of the true effect of the law or policy:

Is it any wonder that these outrages have been perpetrated on an unsuspecting public and an enfeebled press? Not when you consider that this is an administration that has put forth deliberately misleading proposals like the Healthy Forests Initiative, which removes barriers to clear-cutting, and the Clear Skies Initiative, which weakens existing safeguards on mercury, sulfur dioxide and other pollutants dumped into the air by power plants. 

Psychological studies demonstrate that this twisting of language should concern us. There is great power in priming attention by the choice of words in a question.  In “The Psychology of Judgment and Decision Making (1993), Scott Plous set out these examples (from work by Elizabeth Loftus and others):

Phrasing of Question          Mean Answer

How long was the movie?     130 Minutes
How short was the movie?   100 Minutes

How tall was the basketball player?      79 inches
How short was the basketball player?  69 inches

Do you favor a law prohibiting abortions?                 29% in favor
Do you favor a law protecting the life of the unborn? 50% in favor

In another experiment recounted by Plous, students watched a video of a car accident. They were later asked whether they saw broken glass.  Twice as many students recalled glass when the question was whether there was broken glass when the cars “hit” as when they “smashed.”

When the students were asked the speed of the cars depicted in a video, this also depended on the phrasing of the question:

How fast were the cars going when they

Verb             Mean Speed
Smashed?         40.8
Collided?           39.3
Bumbed?          38.1
Hit?                  34.0
Contacted?       31.8

I know that this point is well known–politicians have used these tricks for years, but I found these statistics interesting in that they quantified the effect.


Category: Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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